Edel Bhreathnach, Joseph MacMahon OFM, and John McCafferty, eds., The Irish Franciscans 1534-1990, Four Courts Press, Dublin and Portland, 2009. 

Edel Bhreathnach, Joseph MacMahon OFM, and John McCafferty, eds., The Irish Franciscans 1534-1990, Four Courts Press, Dublin and Portland, 2009.  £24.95, ISBN 9781846822100 (paperback), pp. xvii + 413,

Reviewed by: Amy L. Koehlinger, Oregon State University, July 2012


The Irish Franciscans 1534-1990offers an encyclopedic survey of the history of religious in the Franciscan family from the reign of Henry VIII to the late twentieth century.   The volume was inspired by the proximity of two noteworthy anniversaries for Irish Franciscans, the 800-year anniversary of St. Francis’ journey to Rome in 1209 to present his Rule to Pope Innocent III, and the 400-year anniversary of the founding of St. Anthony’s College in Louvain in 1607.   The edited volume is divided into two separate sections. The first part of the volume presents a comprehensive overview of Irish Franciscanism through chronological essays that trace the volatile history of Franciscan orders through the upheavals, purges, and restorations of Catholicism in Ireland.  The second half of the volume offers historical essays in a more interpretive vein that assess the religious, political, educational, artistic and architectural legacy of Irish Franciscanism.  The volume will be of particular interest to scholars working on the history of male Franciscan religious in the British Isles and on the European continent.  It also offers useful information to scholars studying efforts to preserve Gaelic culture through the centuries, those interested in the material culture of Catholic Ireland, demographers of Irish religious foundations, and historians of Franciscan devotional literature and practice.  Unfortunately, the volume offers little of substance or direct import for scholars of women religious.

The portrait that emerges from the collected essays is of a resilient Franciscan foundation in Ireland, one that was able to withstand political persecution, social unrest, famine, cycles of reform and debate and uneven support from Rome.  One especially illuminating essay in the collection, ‘A wooden key to open Heaven’s door: lessons in practical Catholicism from Saint Anthony’s College, Louvain’ by Salvador Ryan explores the devotional literature authored by Franciscans for lay Catholics.  According to Ryan, Franciscan scholars from Louvain encouraged Catholics to sanctify their daily routines—even action as mundane a getting dressed—with prayer. Special attention is given to the history of Saint Anthony’s College, Louvain, in several places with essays that explore its institutional history as well as the historiographical, scholarly, and devotional contributions Saint Anthony’s has made to both Franciscan spirituality and to Irish cultural preservation.

Aside from a solid, well-researched essay on the Poor Clares by Bernadette Cunningham, the other seventeen essays in the volume do not discuss women or women religious.  The Order of Friars Minor (OFM) is the central subject of most of the essays, though Third Order (TOR) Franciscans appear occasionally as well. While the authors cannot be faulted for failing to write about the admittedly thin presence of Franciscan women religious in Ireland, the volume’s focus on ecclesiastical, theological, and literary history diverts attention from topics that address the Franciscan legacy in the religious experience of women in Ireland and elsewhere.  The volume would have benefitted from the inclusion of historians versed in social and cultural history who could have addressed how devotional innovations made by Irish Franciscans were implemented and experienced by Catholic families in Ireland, or how the intra-order wrangling of Capuchins and Conventuals friars or secular and religious priests in various time periods (well documented in the volume’s essays) affected Catholics at the parish level.  The volume also might have addressed the relationship between the Poor Clares and Franciscan clergy in their respective efforts to preserve and promote Catholicism in Ireland.   Finally, a comparative historical perspective might have illuminated the stark contrast between the absence of Franciscan women religious in Ireland and their proliferation in Irish Catholic communities in the United States from the 1860s to the 1960s.

The weakness of the volume in illuminating women and women religious does not negate the collection’s achievement in documenting in a single volume the complex history and rich cultural legacy of Franciscan priests and brothers in Ireland since the sixteenth century.